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There Is No Such Thing As Political Correctness

At least according to Amanda Taub from Vox, who wrote a blog piece in response to an article by Jonathan Chait. Chait argues that the resurgent form of political correctness today is threatening to undermine liberalism. He seems to think this is a bad thing, but I digress. Taub contradicts that, saying that use of the label “Political Correctness” is actually a way of dismissing the legitimate concerns of others that we ourselves do not feel particularly strong about. She uses as an example a single comment by a Virginia legislator, Jackson Miller, who wanted the Washington Redskins to keep their name unchanged. Taub, unsurprisingly, thinks it is racist and should be changed so as to avoid offending people. Miller made the statement that the controversy over the Redskins’ name was “political correctness on steroids on overdrive” (interestingly Taub left out the “steroids” part in her version of the quote). Taub sees this as simply a ploy to shut down the debate without considering the possibility of racism, and thus shows a lack of respect to those who have what might be legitimate concerns.

In fact what Taub appears to be doing here is projection. As Chait points out well in the above article, it is actually liberals who have been shutting down debate and dismissing the viewpoints of those who do not fit in with their ideological perspective which is what the (admittedly arbitrary) standards of political correctness do. A closer look at Taub’s analysis of the statement by Jackson Miller is instructive. The comment which she pulled out of context came at the end of a speech of his which he even prefaced by saying it was “the last thing I’ll say about this movement for the Redskins to change their name.” In other words it was his closing statement in trying to explain why a state legislator should even become involved in a controversy about the name of a football team. Taub fails to even consider the possibility that Miller has thoughtfully considered the issue and has concluded that the concerns over the name have no merit. In fact Taub is the one who is dismissing Miller and failing to consider his arguments (I can’t resist this as an amusing aside and as an illustration of Taub’s sloppy thinking, but it also appears that Taub thinks the name is Del Jackson Miller as she writes it in her blog, a mistake which apparently came from her reading of the above Washington Post article in which he is listed as “Del. Jackson Miller.” The abbreviation “Del.” is short for delegate as he was a delegate to the Redskins Pride Caucus. Taub took a quote out of context, misquoted it, and also made a careless blunder on the name – an impressive three-fer!).

Taub also seeks to illustrate her case by mentioning how the concerns about online harassment of women bloggers such as herself and some others are dismissed as an illegitimate display of political correctness. I have news for Amanda Taub: that’s life. I have done blogging and online debating in many different fora over the years and I have been on the receiving end of a good bit of vitriol, profanity, and even threats. It would be nice to live in a world where that wasn’t a reality, but we don’t. I don’t see that harassment of women online is a bigger problem than harassment of men. To see this as an example of sexism is to blind oneself to a large part of reality. But it also brings to mind the recent case where a male conservative writer on a college campus had his room vandalized for writing a satirical piece about the excesses of the new political correctness (see Chait’s article above for a summary). One wonders if Taub has had anything like that happen to her because of an article she wrote.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown has her own response to Chait which is much more sympathetic. Her biggest disagreements with Chait are first that she thinks the extreme p.c. crowd is actually mainstream liberalism rather than radical leftists as Chait holds, and that the radicals actually oppose it. I’ll leave it to others to analyze that claim; I’m more interested in her second disagreement, namely that political correctness today is not for the most part coming from academia, but from social media and journalists. Ironically there was a recent announcement to faculty of the CUNY Graduate center that they were no longer to use gendered titles like “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Ms.” to address students or prospective students. (paywall). One doesn’t have to think hard of other rules which have originated at institutions of higher learning. Some might suggest that actually some of the most bizarre p.c. rules have come from academia and eventually get filtered down to social media through students of these institutions.

It is touching to note, however, that Brown has finally decided that political correctness is a real problem after long thinking of “use of the term ‘political correctness’ to be the sole province of dullards, bigots, and general morons.” In fact she says that as recently as a year ago she held this opinion, roughly putting her in the same boat that Amanda Taub presently occupies. Why the change? Could it be because the thought police have finally started attacking things that she doesn’t think are real problems? Conservatives were among the first to recognize the dangerous trajectory of political correctness simply because they were the first to be targeted. It almost looks like many on the left are just waking up to that reality, though judging by Amanda Taub there is still plenty of denial to go around. So where does this leave us? As a conservative there is some satisfaction in being able to think “I told you so” in response to the Elizabeth Nolan Browns of the left. The bigger question is whether anything will change when those occupying the center left of the spectrum increasingly find themselves running afoul of the thought police.

On a final note, it is striking to me how many of these liberal articles contain some sort of parenthetical comment to the effect that yes, the threat of those awful conservatives is bad, but the new thought police might be just as bad if not worse. I can think of no better response than Paul Cella’s here. The supposed threat of conservatives seems to me to be largely a figment of the leftist imagination. Political Correctness, on the other hand, is a real and increasingly present danger.

Comments (14)

Agreed, political correctness seems to trump almost everything in it's power. A good example is the current administration's inability to name the religion that almost every terrorist holds. The larger the organisation, the worse the political correctness seems to be. That sort of thought control holds the most egregious consequences.
BTW, I doubt that anyone (including American Indians) really every gave the name of the Redskins the remotest thought until they were told over and over again that they were supposed to be offended by the title. That's how political correctness works and it affects those who have not been properly trained to understand it and fight it. Sadly, government schooled kids are especially susceptible.

I don't know much about Brown but gather she regards herself as a libertarian rather than a liberal. Hence her example of using the term "sex worker" and being annoyed when people called it "political correctness." If I've figured out (from her venue, partly, because otherwise I know nothing about her) where she falls in the political spectrum correctly, this is a somewhat interesting example. She, presumably, used "sex worker" instead of "prostitute" because she thinks prostitution should be legal and intended to indicate that she thinks of prostitutes as free women offering a service rather than exploited victims, etc., etc.

I suppose this raises the mildly interesting question: If one chooses to use a neologism oneself because one actually has explicit political opinions one wishes to express by that neologism, and if one doesn't try to force or pressure others to use this neologism, does that count as an instance of political correctness anymore? If Brown and her friends use "sex worker" to express their libertarian views on the legalization of prostitution, one might argue that that isn't political correctness, but that it _is_ political correctness if a professor marks "prostitute" wrong on a student's paper and writes in the margin, "Please use a more sensitive and less outdated term such as 'sex worker'." In the latter case, part (though only part) of what makes the professor's action objectionable is the appeal to vague values like sensitivity and contemporary language use, rather than admitting, "I think prostitution should be legal. I want to make my students write as though they evaluate prostitution in the same way that I do. Therefore, I am using my power as a teacher to insist that you use language to downplay disapproval of prostitution and express agreement with me on this topic, whether you actually agree or not."

There is a further interesting question that arises: Is there anything _parallel_ to political correctness which is legitimate because the ideas lying behind it are actually _correct_? So, for example, if a student wants to use the n word freely in his paper to express his contempt for black people and his professor tells him that he must use some other, more neutral term, this bears some similarity in form to political correctness. This is so even if the teacher gives the student a range of permissible terms he can use and doesn't insist on the clunky, hyphenated "African-American." But still, the professor is telling the student that he cannot use a single, unpleasant word to express contempt for that group of people, which is going to alter the tone and to some degree the content of what he writes away from expressing his actual views. This is true even if the professor allows the student to argue for racist views in his paper. (Compare the fact that a student forced to use "sex worker" throughout a paper arguing that prostitution should be illegal is being forced to write something with a different rhetorical force than if he were allowed to use the term "prostitute" while making the same argument.)

I'm actually willing to say that I will use the term "political correctness" guided in part by my substantive opinion of the norms being imposed.

At the same time, I think it is quite obvious that the left is far more inclined than the right to drum up artificial sensitivities. For that matter, even good norms (such as not expressing contempt for members of other races) can give rise to artificial term-shifting, as in the case of "African-American" above. Conservatives have objected to this on the grounds that it tends to Balkanize Americans into hyphenated groups (I hope there are still some conservatives who raise that objection). A further objection is that it uses people's laudable desire not to be jerks to members of other races to keep them jumping to use a long, clunky term as a sort of sign of allegiance to a larger political agenda that goes a lot farther than just "not being a racist jerk." In my opinion _that_ phenomenon--making up new, clunky words and pressing people to use them in order to maintain ideological control--should not be characteristic of any good political or ideological group.

Okay, a further thought:

Sometimes a short, pithy word is so objectionable that it _has_ to be replaced, and the only available replacements are inevitably going to be longer words or phrases. I think this has occurred in the last sixty years or so concerning the mentally disabled. Words that used to be used for children with Down Syndrome were "monster" or "idiot." Obviously, these would not do in a society that wanted to show compassion to these people and to try to treat them as fellow human beings. Indeed, the society in which they were called by these names was a society in which parents were pressured to institutionalize them at birth. But it is interesting that the attempt to find less objectionable terms has to some extent followed a politically correct trail. For example, when I was a child, "mentally retarded" was intended to be the more accurate and neutral term. Then cruel people, being cruel people, shortened this to "retard," and gradually the phrase "mentally retarded" (which I still sometimes use myself with intent merely to describe) came to be, in a sense, politically incorrect and was replaced by "mentally disabled" or by a specific name for the condition the person has--"Down Syndrome," etc.


The Redskins name is, I think, a good example of the problem with political correctness. For the vast majority of ordinary Americans the name was wholly unobjectionable and nobody ever heard it used as a racial slur. They had to be told repeatedly that it was offensive because it used to be a racial slur and then they had to be bullied into changing their opinion (as many have) by being told that if they supported the name they were racist bigots. In a way it's a good test case of how much you can sway public opinion just by an organized campaign of insulting people who don't accept your view until they are shamed into changing it. Either that or you brainwash them, as in your example of public school children, which is why the left hates and fears us homeschoolers. We refuse to accept their forced, artificial, humanistic norms.

William, I disagree that "government schooled kids are especially susceptible" to the effects of the principles of political correctness. Keep always in mind that many of these very same children who are government educated also have parents who are dyed-in-the-wool, true believing liberals who themselves attend "Christian" churches filled with the same sorts of congregants.

Some 20 years ago now (hard to believe for me, but it has been that long!) my wife and I had enrolled our two oldest children in a Christian homeschool satellite program here in our state of Oklahoma - one particularly well known in certain circles at the time for producing in its graduates a Biblical-Christian worldview (see PEERS test, mid-'90s). As part of the program we were required to attend the host Christian Day School's summer seminars on home education, which we agreed to cheerfully. In one of the required classes we attended together in particular (concerning the curriculum and teaching of Christian Geography - or the teaching of the subject of Geography from a Biblical-Christian perspective), I recall distinctly that the woman conducting the class vehemently disagreed with the final chapter in a late 19th century Geography textbook, which she otherwise highly recommended, because of what she deemed its blatant and inexcusable "racism." I did not challenge her opinion of the chapter (although I sometimes, and in some ways wish I had in hindsight), but I remember being taken completely aback by her disgust for the contents of the chapter (which she made no bones about announcing) since I had read it myself months prior to attending her class, and had come away from it with a very favorable overall opinion of the chapter in light of the context of the whole book. In any event, the title of the book is Physical Geography by Arnold Guyot (c. 1873 I think), if you or anyone else cares to check it out. It is available online on Google Books.


I think there is a real tragedy with political correctness in that it does embody a valid impulse of not wanting to give unnecessary offense to anyone, but because of the ridiculous nature of its excesses (not using titles like "Mr." and "Ms." to avoid offending transgender people for example) are so outrageous that many ordinary people will simply run screaming in the opposite direction. Also, the way that the rules of political correctness are enforced is simply draconian. It is sometimes mind-blowing to see how virulently these people react against transgressors, and they show an utter lack of civility and basic decency to those who transgress even if the transgression is done completely unwittingly and innocently.

I don't know if you've seen the piece by Fredrick deBoer on this (http://fredrikdeboer.com/2015/01/29/i-dont-know-what-to-do-you-guys/), but his examples are astonishing to read. Interestingly you say that "mentally disabled" became the p.c. term for people with a disability. Apparently "disabled" is no longer p.c. as deBoer writes that "I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 19 year old white woman — smart, well-meaning, passionate — literally run crying from a classroom because she was so ruthlessly brow-beaten for using the word 'disabled.' Not repeatedly. Not with malice. Not because of privilege. She used the word once and was excoriated for it. She never came back."

As Christians we don't want to give offense (1 Cor. 10:32), but it becomes impossible in an environment where the slightest perceived offense ("microaggressions" anyone?) is met with the most virulent condemnation and public shaming. I have to admit that it makes me want to say that's simply their problem.

I find that it is helpful to discuss these things on the grounds of the truth and falsehood of particular concrete views, and what views are actually implied or even encouraged by terms, rather than on the grounds of offense. Hence, I defend using the term "black" rather than "African-American" on grounds such as that the latter carries a lot of extra political baggage which I might not share while the former is more neutral, that the former does not in fact convey contempt for the minority group, and that the former can be applied internationally. (Cf. the amusing situation recently where one commentator referred to a black Frenchman as "African-American.")

In contrast, I will not let people on my blog threads refer to human beings by the noun that Wesley J. Smith calls the "v word"--namely, "vegetable." A carrot is a vegetable; a human being is not. I defend this restriction not on grounds of the possibility of offending someone but on the grounds that the v-word for humans really does both express and foster dehumanizing contempt for people in comas.

I think the use of offense arguments is part of what has enabled political correctness to become so crazy, because those who want to control others can always just make up new stuff to dub "offensive" without ever having to defend any substantive view about moral, political, or even linguistic facts.

Also, the way that the rules of political correctness are enforced is simply draconian. It is sometimes mind-blowing to see how virulently these people react against transgressors, and they show an utter lack of civility and basic decency to those who transgress...

As Christians we don't want to give offense (1 Cor. 10:32), but it becomes impossible in an environment where the slightest perceived offense ("microaggressions" anyone?) is met with the most virulent condemnation and public shaming.

John, though not the only tool in the toolbox, we should fight fire with fire, turn the tables on them: Be prepared to raise your voice, with utterly scathing tone of outrage, with "How DARE you be so offensive to the feelings of others. Your contempt for "the Other", your lack of sensitivity for those different from you is appalling. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, your intolerant behavior has no place in the public forum." (Then you turn to all the others present who witness the event) "And I don't know about the rest of you, but I for one will not stand here and permit this grossly offensive intolerance to rest unopposed, I am leaving right now and will expect the administration to require a public apology. I hope others of you are willing to stand up for justice with me and refuse to listen to intolerance like that." Where, of course, there are two real offensive behaviors by the professor or whomever, one is the act of finding offense in a student using a term like "disability", and the second is the act of publicly remonstrating harshly and uncivilly at (what is at worst) the merely trivial. But you leave the details of just what you are calling out unstated and let the appearance lie that their offense is their act of intolerance, the one sin which cannot be forgiven.

They had to be told repeatedly that it was offensive because it used to be a racial slur and then they had to be bullied into changing their opinion (as many have) by being told that if they supported the name they were racist bigots.

Right, they have to be told. Because so far as I can tell the term never was a term of racial contempt. It came about without any intent to insult, and it was merely used descriptively through most of its history. One of the proofs is that in the 1930's, when the team name got started, many people had little objection to using racial epithets in order to show contempt, but they were JUST FINE with "Redskins" being a name indicating respect for the bravery and warrior ethos of Indians. If it really had been a term of racial contempt, it couldn't have been used as the team name. I seem to recall that in the 1990's the team went around to area tribes, and found that THEY didn't object to the name. No, tribal groups had to be taught to object to the name over the last 20 years, rabble-rousers had to create the mind-set of being offended at the name.

John's OP and the comments are all excellent -- great, thought-provoking stuff. One thing that hasn't been pointed out, however, is the irony of Chait as the original author is the pot calling the kettle black after all these years:


Just another data point is the "PC is dangerous" file!


Thanks for bringing that article to our attention. I suppose if I was more with it in this area I would be more familiar with Chait and the other writers whose names have come up here. Maybe it's because I've lived in Eastern Europe for most of the last 12 years, or maybe I spend too much time in the bubble of the conservative blogosphere.

The piece by Davis goes along with my penultimate paragraph in the o.p. and my speculation that some lefties are finally realizing that political correctness is a problem because the p.c. police are attacking things they don't think are actual problems, which is what Davis seems to think is the case with Chait. I also thought it was interesting that Fredrik deBoer started his own piece (on how in spite of his lefty credentials he thinks the new p.c. is bad) by ripping Chait as a jerk who is condescending, wrong about the basic nature of language policing, wrong about the solutions, and a hypocrite to boot. I got the impression that he was trying to impress people that he knew which people to hate on in order to establish his view as legit. I have to admit, I don't know who the cool kids are. But I've learned so much reading all these lefty blogs about this (this issue really seems to have caught fire on the left) that I might need to do a follow-up post.

The several instances of prominent journalists haltingly referring to blacks in, say, the UK as "African Americans" are, almost by themselves, refutation of the willfully ridiculous thesis that PC does not exist.

Although I mostly agree with the thesis PC has run amok, here is a quick non-PC test. If the football team changed their name to the Washington Rednecks would you expect to see a bunch of Southern heritage marches and conservative politicos decry the terrible hurt and insult inflicted on hardworking rural poor people? If so, why would they be so overly sensitive?

I'd laugh. And I bet a lot of real rednecks would laugh too and be pleased. Sort of like the way that Duck Dynasty has turned out: Yep, I'm a redneck and proud of it. But the reason they wouldn't do that (change it to Washington Rednecks) is that it would be an honor to Rednecks if they did so, and we couldn't have that. Let's face it--Americans love their football. Naming a football team after some entity is an honor to the thing named.

That's a good point, there has been a Hee Haw type element that revels in the caricatures made about rural living. I don't think American Indians have ever had such an element.

When I did some digging into the name, it appears the term was formulated in the 1700's by the Indians to be a self-designation when talking to settlers using the color scheme settlers were already using about race. While there is scholarly disagreement over how soon and to what extent the negative implications began, the dispute seems to be because of a difference between official and diplomatic usage and informal frontier usage. Officially the term kept its neutral meaning for at least a hundred years, but on the frontier it was more closely associated with the guerrilla warfare being waged by some American Indians. After the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the wars became more intense and organized, the derogatory frontier usage became the norm. I expect that after the wars were over the term lost most of that negative association, but probably not all.

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